Thursday, August 9, 2007

Gen. Bonaparte's Army Marches to Damanhour (Bourrienne)

From a Gutenberg e-text of Bourrienne's biography of Napoleon Bonaparte (R.W. Phipps trans.):

Bonaparte employed the six days during which he remained in Alexandria in establishing order in the city and province, with that activity and superior talent which I could never sufficiently admire, and in directing the march of the army across the province of Bohahire'h [Buhayrah].

He sent Desaix with 4500 infantry and 60 cavalry to Beda, on the road to Damanhour. This general was the first to experience the privations and sufferings which the whole army had soon to endure. His great mind, his attachment to Bonaparte, seemed for a moment about to yield to the obstacles which presented themselves. On the 15th of July he wrote from Bohahire'h as follows: "I beseech you do not let us stop longer in this position. My men are discouraged and murmur. Make us advance or fall back without delay. The villages consist merely of huts, absolutely without resources."

In these immense plains, scorched by the vertical rays of a burning sun, water, everywhere else so common, becomes an object of contest. The wells and springs, those secret treasures of the desert, are carefully concealed from the travellers; and frequently, after our most oppressive marches, nothing could be found to allay the urgent cravings of thirst but a little brackish water of the most disgusting description.

--[Some idea of the misery endured by the French troops on this occasion may be gathered from the following description is Napoleon's Memoirs, dictated at St. Helena:

"As the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness complained, and angrily asked Moses for the onions and flesh-pots of Egypt, the French soldiers constantly regretted the luxuries of Italy. In vain were they assured that the country was the most fertile in the world, that it was even superior to Lombard; how were they to be persuaded of this when they could get neither bread nor wine? We encamped on immense quantities of wheat, but there was neither mill nor oven in the country. The biscuit brought from Alexandria had long been exhausted; the soldiers were even reduced to bruise the wheat between two stones and to make cake which they baked under the ashes. Many parched the wheat in a pan, after which they boiled it. This was the best way to use the grain; but, after all, it was not bread. The apprehensions of the soldiers increased daily, and rose to such a pitch that a great number of them said there was no great city of calm; and that the place bring that name was, like Damanhour, a vast assemblage of mere huts, destitute of everything that could render life comfortable or agreeable. To such a melancholy state of mind had they brought themselves that two dragoons threw themselves, completely clothed, into the Nile, where they were drowned. It is nevertheless true that, though there was neither bread nor wine, the resources which were procured with wheat, lentils, meat, and sometimes pigeons, furnished the army with food of some kind. But the evil was, in the ferment of the mind. The officers complained more loudly than the soldiers, because the comparison was proportionately more disadvantageous to them. In Egypt they found neither the quarters, the good table, nor the luxury of Italy. The General-in-Chief, wishing to set an example, tried to bivouac in the midst of the army, and in the least commodious spots. No one had either tent or provisions; the dinner of Napoleon and his staff consisted of a dish of lentils. The soldiers passed the evenings in political conversations, arguments, and complaints. 'For what purpose are we come here?' said some of them, 'the Directory has transported us.' 'Caffarelli,' said others, 'is the agent that has been made use of to deceive the General-in- Chief.' Many of them, having observed that wherever there were vestiges of antiquity they were carefully searched, vented their spite in invective against the savants, or scientific men, who, they said, had started the idea of she expedition to order to make these searches. Jests were showered upon them, even in their presence. The men called an ass a savant; and said of Caffarelli Dufalga, alluding to his wooden leg, 'He laughs at all these troubles; he has one foot to France. . .'"

On the 7th of July General Bonaparte left Alexandria for Damanhour. In the vast plains of Bohahire'h the mirage every moment presented to the eye wide sheets of water, while, as we advanced, we found nothing but barren ground full of deep cracks. Villages, which at a distance appear to be surrounded with water, are, on a nearer approach, discovered to be situated on heights, mostly artificial, by which they are raised above the inundations of the Nile. This illusion continually recurs; and it is the more treacherous, inasmuch as it presents to the eye the perfect representation of water, at the time when the want of that article is most felt. This mirage is so considerable in the plain of Pelusium that shortly after sunrise no object is recognisable. The same phenomenon has been observed in other countries. Quintus Curtius says that in the deserts of Sogdiana, a fog rising from the earth obscures the light, and the surrounding country seems like a vast sea. The cause of this singular illusion is now fully explained; and, from the observations of the learned Monge, it appears that the mirage will be found in almost every country situated between the tropics where the local circumstances are similar.

The Arabs harassed the army without intermission. The few wells met with in the desert were either filled up or the water was rendered unfit for use. The intolerable thirst with which the troops were tormented, even on this first march, was but ill allayed by brackish and unwholesome water. The army crossed the desert with the rapidity of lightning, scarcely tasting a drop of water. The sufferings of the troops were frequently expressed by discouraging murmurs.

On the first night a mistake occurred which might have proved fatal. We were advancing in the dark, under feeble escort, almost sleeping on our horses, when suddenly we were assailed by two successive discharges of musketry. We aroused ourselves and reconnoitred, and to our great satisfaction discovered that the only mischief was a alight wound received by one of our guides. Our assailants were the division of General Desaix, who, forming the advanced guard of the army, mistook us for a party of the enemy, and fired upon us. It was speedily ascertained that the little advanced guard of the headquarters had not heard the "Qui vive?" of Desaix's advanced posts.

On reaching Damanhour our headquarters were established at the residence of a sheik. The house had been new whitened, and looked well enough outside, but the interior was inconceivably wretched. Every domestic utensil was broken, and the only seats were a few dirty tattered mats. Bonaparte knew that the sheik was rich, and having somewhat won his confidence, he asked him, through the medium of the interpreter, why, being in easy circumstances, be thus deprived himself of all comfort. "Some years ago," replied the sheik, "I repaired and furnished my house. When this became known at Cairo a demand was made upon me for money, because it was said my expenses proved me to be rich. I refused to pay the money, and in consequence I was ill-treated, and at length forced to pay it. From that time I have allowed myself only the bare necessaries of life, and I shall buy no furniture for my house." The old man was lame in consequence of the treatment he had suffered. Woe to him who in this country is suspected of having a competency--a hundred spies are always ready to denounce him. The appearance of poverty is the only security against the rapine of power and the cupidity of barbarism.

A little troop of Arabs on horseback assailed our headquarters. Bonaparte, who was at the window of the sheik's house, indignant at this insolence, turned to one of his aides de camp, who happened to be on duty, and said, "Croisier, take a few guides and drive those fellows away!" In an instant Croisier was in the plain with fifteen guides. A little skirmish ensued, and we looked on from the window. In the movement and in the attack of Croisier and his party there was a sort of hesitation which the General-in-Chief could not comprehend. "Forward, I say! Charge!" he exclaimed from the window, as if he could have been heard. Our horsemen seemed to fall back as the Arabs returned to the attack; and after a little contest, maintained with tolerable spirit, the Arabs retired without loss, and without being molested in their retreat. Bonaparte could no longer repress his rage; and when Croisier returned he experienced such a harsh reception that the poor fellow withdrew deeply mortified and distressed. Bonaparte desired me to follow him and say something to console him: but all was in vain. "I cannot survive this," he said. "I will sacrifice my life on the first occasion that offers itself. I will not live dishonoured." The word coward had escaped the General's lips. Poor Croisier died at Saint Jean d'Acre.

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